Thursday, 4 November 2010

Black Christmas (1974)

Country: CANADA

Silent Night, Evil Night
Stranger in the House

In a recent article entitled The Ten Most Overrated Horror Films of All Time I included Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian proto-slasher film Black Christmas as a footnote. Several people who commented on the piece (and thanks to all those who did) were somewhat surprised by its inclusion. With this in mind I decided to re-watch Black Christmas (once I found a copy, it took me twenty minutes of searching) and see if there was anything worth re-evaluating. My memories were of a visually bland and increasingly hysterical film whose position of prominence came about simply because somebody somewhere remembered this was made before Halloween (1978). There is a temptation to value films that began a cycle, but of course Black Christmas did not begin a cycle. Once again we have a case of retrospective acclaim. At the time of its release it appeared with little fanfare and quickly vanished in the same way. Many of the plot elements of Clark’s film were assimilated into the slasher form, but there is a crucial difference between this and the film that popularised these formal qualities; Halloween. The difference lies in the direction, and even a cursory glance of the respective filmographies of Clark and Carpenter will illustrate that the latter is a better filmmaker. All the ingredients were there for Black Christmas to be the Halloween of 1974 - but it wasn’t. The reason is that it simply wasn’t good enough.

By the time Bob Clark came to direct and produce Black Christmas he was no stranger to the production and distribution imperatives forced on a filmmaker of limited means within the grindhouse/exploitation circuit. His promising debut film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) was an effective (if somewhat amateurish) satire which used the tropes of the zombie film in order to explore the limitations of the counter-cultural dream. His second feature (and his best horror film in my view) was the underrated and under-seen Death Dream (1974). The zombie was once again utilised as a political metaphor - in this case to explore the anxieties of veterans returning from the Vietnam War. Black Christmas appeared in the same year, showing that Clark (and his frequent collaborator Allan Ormsby) were prolific and important talents in the genre. The direction Clark’s career took in the late 1970’s and beyond can only be considered a disappointment from the standpoint of genre fans.

As alluded too earlier the importance of Black Christmas lies in the number of formal conventions that were unwittingly established. The use of a seasonal holiday in the title became a characteristic of the subgenre. A reliance on POV shots in order to create subjectivity and red herrings, a cast made up of sexually precocious teenagers, the use of off screen space in order to create suspense and tension, and an enigmatic psychopath binding it all together. These are all aspects that are only interesting from an historical perspective, because they quickly became clichés of the form. But the film has some other important qualities that are worth noting. Firstly, rather bravely in my opinion, Clark opts to keep the killer hidden. The psychopath remains shrouded in mystery, an omnipotent, but unknowable presence that permeates every frame with a residue of perverse evil. We are given no motivation for the spate of murders that befall the unfortunate students of a sorority house. At the heart of the film is an enigma that remains to be unravelled.

The only clue to the personality of the psychopath is the obscene vitriol of nuisance telephone calls, or is this just another red herring? Unfortunately these questions and the pace of the film is damaged by a perfunctory and leaden police investigation. However, it is led by evergreen genre stalwart John Saxon, who always enhances any film he acts in. Unfortunately this is the only performance I enjoyed - Olivia Hussey is typically lifeless and bland, Keir Dullea has the animation of a bookcase, and Margot Kidder is her usual grotesque self. My views on the visual style of the film haven’t changed, this is a dismal and dreary looking picture. There is a retrospective case to be argued for this film as an important landmark in the horror genre, but it lacks the inspiration and brilliance required to herald a new cinematic form. It nevertheless deserved a lot better than the feeble remake that crawled up out of the cinematic sewer in 2006.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. While I can't argue with any of your points as they are all valid, I still enjoyed this even with all its flaws. It may be nostalgia I don't know. What I will say is thank you for mentioning Death Dream as I have always felt that was one of his best. I think I will include it in my all day marathon I am doing today. Agree or not I enjoy your writing and always am glad to see you have a new post. Glasses raised.

  2. I agree that Death Dream is the superior, more interesting film. Its climax in the cemetery was quite chilling, as I recall.

  3. Nice evaluation, Shaun, despite this being one of my all time favorite horror pictures. However, I believe that if there had not been a BLACK CHRISTMAS, we may not have gotten a HALLOWEEN, at least not the film we all know now. BC was a success in Canada and Clark was approached to do a sequel.

    When asked about doing the sequel by a young Carpenter, the storyline Clark had envisioned was not only to have been titled HALLOWEEN, but it also featured the killer being caught and later escaping a mental asylum and returning to his hometown.

    I think the characters in BC are more real than the average slasher. Hussey's character is a rare breed in this kind of film in that she has had sex, gotten pregnant and wants an abortion on top of that! Actually, calling BC a slasher is a bit derogatory in my view. It's better than that and belongs in a class by itself.

    WHEN A STRANGER CALLS also copied one of the big shock moments during the finale. I also like the mean spirited atmosphere and wouldn't have it any other way. Still, there are some lighter moments early on that foreshadow Clark's classic PORKY'S and even A CHRISTMAS STORY.

    Also, Clark is a bit more versatile than Carpenter ever was. He apparently didn't even want to do horror movies, but did them to get established. To be able to pull off the films he did in a genre he had little interest in is/was no small feat in my view. His MURDER BY DECREE (1979) has long been considered by many to be the best film on Jack the Ripper.

    I'd also argue Clark has about as many movies that are considered "great" as Carpenter does. Carpenter has been on a downward slope during the latter part of his career and is now seemingly content with "taking the money and running with it", when it comes to his catalog of directorial efforts. This, too, mirrored Clark's career, only Clark was more hands on with the films of his that were being remade.

    Maybe I should finally finish that Bob Clark piece I was working on about 8 months ago?

  4. @ Guts and Grog - I do think this is a good film in places, but there is nothing exceptional about it in my view. Thanks for the kind words, such comments make this blog a worthwhile endeavour :-)

    @ Will - Yes 'Death Dream' is far superior. The horror film Clark should be remembered for in my view. I might have to root out the very good Blue Underground DVD and give it another watch for a review.

    @ Venom - The influence on 'Halloween' is undeniable and I'm happy too acknowledge that. I admit, I didnt know the background story behind Clark's sequel and Carpenters involvement (many thanks for that), but whether he borrowed plot elements or not 'Halloween' is a far superior film from a stylistic and cinematic point of view. It is quite simply a better made film.

    I'm not totally on board with your view of Clark's career. I didnt like 'Porky's' at all, but I agree with you on 'Murder by Decree'. I have to say I'm firmly in Camp Carpenter - simply for the run of films he made between 1974 and 1982. I agree about his slump, but that run of films are enough to put him higher in my estimation than Clark. You should definitely finish your Clark piece, I'd very much like to read that.

  5. Actually, Shaun, if I hadn't read your write up just now, I likely wouldn't have thought much about finishing it for the time being. I have four or five articles that are now lying about incomplete along with it.

    I'm also not that big of a fan of PORKY'S, although I haven't seen it in a long time. I was mainly referring to its box office success and popularity both then and now.

    I agree about DEATHDREAM. Love that movie. I reviewed it myself some time back. I saw it on the revered channel 48 back in the early 80's and it creeped me out as a kid. It's still an underrated movie and was also set to be remade as was a few other Clark movies. Not sure what will become of those revamps now. Probably just as well they don't get made.

  6. I have a major four part article in the offing which I'm currently working on, and its quite difficult at times to stay motivated, so I fully understand your unfinished pieces. I'll be sure to check out your review of 'Deathdream'.

  7. I entirely agree on this one being overrated, I personally found it excrutiantingly slow. But there are some quiet moments, that manage to conjure up a really eerie ominous feeling that I enjoyed.

    The re-make was such a mess, but I liked how it looked. It was a bit more christmasy. I mean, they really exploited that christmas look in the remake.

    Agree, Deathdream is the better Clark film.

  8. I am in the V boat, and I still think that Black Christmas is one of the most influential films in the genre. The fact that Carpenter was linked to Clark before making Halloween may be a huge giveaway to why Halloween was so successful to begin with, as it borrows generously from Clark's film. I shot up a review around Christmas of last year for my complete thoughts, but Shaun it took me 3-4 viewings to truly appreciate everything that was accomplished in Black Christmas. I thought it was abysmal the first time I saw it.

  9. I think 'Black Christmas' is retrospectively influential Carl. That is quite different to saying that it was a major influence at the time on the hundreds of slasher films that emerged in the 1980's - it quite simply wasnt. 'Friday the 13th' had a greater influence at the time. We can look back now and see that 'Black Christmas' did it all first, and should be elevated above 'Friday the 13th' because of that, but in 1981 'Black Christmas' was a forgotten obscurity. I certainly do not think it is abysmal, just not as important or as good as some might think.

  10. This movie is a pure classic from a horror fans point of view. It began much of the horror genre that came after it. The thing none of you mention is that the reason this movie never made as much money and became more obscure and forgotten is because of the time it was released. US release was Dec 20, 1974. Think about the other movies released that same month:
    The Godfather Part II (Dec. 11th)
    Young Frankenstein (Dec. 15th)
    Towering Inferno (Dec. 17th)
    Man with The Golden Gun (Dec. 20th)
    All 4 of these movies were in the top 10 grossing movies of the entire year (Towering Inferno was #1)! I wasn't old enough to see it at the time, but my sister watched it in the theatre next door to where we were watching Towering Inferno. She was terrified and freaked out after the film.

  11. An excellent point, and a wonderful little bit of research there...many thanks for that. It's always good to place the film within the context of its distribution competitors. However I do still think that the bleak tone and its own patchy distribution are as much to do with its failure as the heavy hitters it was up against.

  12. you all might want to seek out this 1972 horror film called..."silent night bloody night" you will see elements in there that similar to black christmas as well Halloween.

  13. This film was so ahead of its time and still so impressive today. I never tire of it. The best Christmas horror film ever made IMO.

  14. The best Christmas horror film ever made? I'd agree with that, but it's hardly in illustrious company. As for it still being impressive to this day, I'm slightly more reticent in agreeing to that Ray.

  15. I too feel that this film has been given to much credit on estabilshing the slasher genre. As to your own point how well would Black Christmas be remembered without such films like Halloween being made. Which is a guess is the source of the debate, as one camp will believe that Halloween would not of been as great without Black Christmas's template on the slasher Genre and the other camp (Such as myself) believe Black Christmas is only noted due to the sucess of the later released films. Even so I do own and enjoy on occasion watching Black Christmas, as it has some merit such as seeing J.Saxon playing the Detective assigned to the case, looking back it was almost like as early audition for Saxon for the Nightmare on Elm st series. Also if memory serves the ending does leave the watcher with the posibility that the kiler did not act alone which gives an added twist. Oh and the scariest Christmas Horror film ever has to be Home alone as that film is completley terrifying to sit through!

  16. Oh I think BLACK CHRISTMAS has a lot of merit. I think my criticisms of it should be put into perspective. By the standards of the slasher film it is very good indeed. The problem is I don't hold the slasher film in high regard. It also depends on your definition of influence. I personally believe this film to have retrospective influence.

  17. The "influence" of a movie can not be determined by how many people saw it or how much money it made. Its influence is based on "who" saw it. It is pretty obvious to me after just watching this movie myself that Carpenter saw this movie before filming Halloween. Halloween may be the superior film but it was "influenced" by Black Christmas.


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